The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Puerto Rico: Late Imperial Possession

Puerto Rico got hit hard by Hurricane Maria. An understatement.

An aide at the White House has said that the disaster bill will be sent to Congress in the first or second week of October. (FEMA is already there, but they are insufficient.)

And the news is that most of Puerto Rico may be without power for up to six months. Only one major port is operational, roads are washed out, communication grids are (obviously) down, and water is unavailable in many places.

Our modern distribution system is a wonder of efficiency, in terms of cost. But it is “just in time,” it does not leave large stocks piled up the way the older system did. This is a problem for a lot of non-obvious items–for example, medicine. This concerns not just things like insulin, but medicines you don’t want to be suddenly thrown off and into withdrawal: A lot of psychiatric medications have terrible withdrawals, often as bad as many illegal drugs.

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What is interesting about all this is not so much the scale of the disaster as the indifference of the response.It is more extreme than that which greeted other catastrophes, such as when New York was hit, and even then the areas where the lower classes lived were ignored, until they could be bought up.

But while Puerto Rico is more extreme, it is along the same continuum. The US has become very bad at disaster relief, because US elites don’t really care unless it affects them.

It is impossible to imagine this level of indifference in the 1950s through the 1970s, whatever else those decades’ flaws. Americans were proud of their ability to mobilize, proud of their protectorates, and could and would get material and people on the ground, fast.

This indifference, this lack of both fellow feeling and real pride (not in the sense of saluting the flag, but in the sense of actually making the country work), is, next to excessive corruption, the surest sign of the US’s decline.

Puerto Rico is an imperial possession, and America does not care about its possessions any more: It does not take pride in them.

And one wonders how much real mobilization ability the US has left (as opposed to theoretical). Can the US effectively mobilize any more? Or has everything become so corrupt, overpriced, and sclerotic that, really, there just isn’t that much surge ability?

I suppose Puerto Ricans can be left to rot, though they shouldn’t be–and doing so will have consequences beyond Puerto Rico. But when something the elites consider important gets hit, does the US have the ability to respond effectively?

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  1. nihil obstet

    In the wake of Katrina when bodies were lying in the streets of New Orleans and suffering in the Superdome was broadcast worldwide, the U.S. acted like a third-world tinpot dictatorship, turning away foreign assistance. The refusal to allow Cuban medical emergency personnel to land and help out was perhaps politically understandable if still unjustifiable, but to turn back a Danish hospital ship? Maybe our elites’ fight with Kim Jong Un is really just sibling rivalry — our people in our great country governed by us don’t need no help from nobody else.

  2. John

    The Puerto Ricans should seek help from the Cubans who have experience living with the post modern lack of modernity that the (dare I say Evil) Empire and neoliberalism is forcing on some people. I heard on the radio today that austerity will help them pay back their bond debt so they can “get back on track”. Ha. Unfortunately a lot of the Puerto Rican elite have been brainwashed by US predatory captalism and good luck for the little people.
    The laughable NPR was interviewing some guy from the PR Chamber of Commerce about “what to do”.

  3. bruce wilder

    The contrast with Cuba is particularly telling.

  4. I have a suggestion as to what Puerto Rico could suggest Wall Street do with their bonds. Indeed, it is high time Wall Street is told what to do with itself.

    We have to stop doing what we’re doing. It isn’t working.

  5. Ché Pasa

    Whose indifference?

    It’s not by any means a generalized thing.

    Whose indifference do you mean?

  6. A1

    nihil – was it not during the NFL final one year in New Orleans there was a power outage for a couple of hours? Or is that down the memory hole? And did the outage almost kill the Ravens?

    If a power outage happened during say the African Cup final I’m sure NYT pundits would be using it as an example for years.

  7. Hugh

    Puerto Ricans are US citizens and their plight is a big deal for the rest of us US citizens. Just as what happened to the people in Texas and Florida. But to the powers that be, not so much. Texas and Florida will fare better because they are big states with big Congressional delegations, and they’re Republican. Forget all that small government stuff, at least for now. Puerto Rico isn’t big, isn’t a state, isn’t Republican, and is a lot further away. So if they can write it off, they will. I would hope that this present crisis will push Puerto Rico to become a state. But that’s for the future. For now, they need all the help they can get, and I wish we were giving it.

  8. Dan Lynch

    Two issues:
    1) Puerto Ricans are human beings and sort of our neighbors and we should strive to assist human beings and neighbors when they have an emergency.
    2) That said, I don’t feel that P.R. is really part of the U.S., regardless what some colonial law says. Hopefully P.R. will get the message that we in the continental U.S. don’t care about them, and get serious about going independent. They would be better off if they went independent.
    The same goes for Hawaii, Guam, U.S. Virgin islands, etc.. They should not be part of the U.S..
    Alaska has oil and strategic value, plus good hunting and fishing, plus it’s part of the same continent, so the continental U.S. feels a bond with Alaska that it doesn’t feel with those little island colonies.
    So yes we should help P.R., all the while encouraging them to break away from the U.S. and become an independent country.

  9. Actually, Alaska, like British Columbia, Oregon, Washington, both Northern California and Idaho and Western Montana, is not a part of North “America”. The Pacific Northwest, Cascadia is the rubble, the detritus of about a hundred million years of a handfull of tectonic plates colliding with North America in several generally westerly and northwesterly directions. East of The Rockies is North America. Cascadia is a place apart.

  10. capelin

    and part of the east coast is from when africa collided with north america.

    “The same goes for Hawaii, Guam, U.S. Virgin islands, etc.. They should not be part of the U.S..”

    agreed. ideally, the u.s. would leave north america as well.

    “This indifference, this lack of both fellow feeling and real pride (not saluting the flag, but making the country work), is, next to excessive corruption, the surest sign of America’s decline.”

    ian, that’s a really great sentence.

  11. Tomonthebeach

    Dan Lynch is encouraging PR to go independent. Would he have recommended that to Greece awhile back (in debt up to its eyeballs to Germany)? Alas, US policy has made PR its dependent. Without massive US free money, they will have no option but to remain in the Empire. The US probably has given more direct aid the past 10 years to the Kurds than to Puerto Rico.

    I doubt that I am the only one who views the lacklustre response to PR’s disaster and POTUS’s bizarre remarks about their pre-disaster debts (to the US mostly), as tinged with racism. Most Puerto Ricans are Hispanic, and we know how much POTUS loves Hispanics.

    The island is almost leveled. Houses were not built or maintained to stand up to a Cat 4 storm. Electric wires were strung like clotheslines on flimsy wooden poles. Even their generators are far from state of the art – if they had any fuel to run the one’s still working.

    The only thing going for PR right now is NYC, which has a large Puerto Rican community who will surely take direct action to help their families in need. I think that Katrina metaphors might prove to be true. Why Air Force and Navy is not dropping water and food all over the island is baffling. It does not take a week to get an aircraft carrier to an offshore island.

  12. No” Africa never collided with North America. There are related flora and fauna as well a geological features where Africa and South America rifted apart but no, Africa never collided with North America. That’s not the way it works.

  13. Ché Pasa

    Actually, many of those Americans who know about the destruction and suffering in Puerto Rico and much of the Caribbean are not indifferent at all. Many are doing what they can under the circumstances, and many are calling for much greater efforts by the nearly exhausted governmental relief agencies — or failing that, by the military.

    It can be harder to know of the catastrophe if you’re glued to the cable tv infotainment/opinion shows, however, because they have few correspondents in the islands, and communications are down, and it’s haaaaaard to cover something so far away, especially when players are defying the president right here at home. Shiny objects, people. Priorities. Needless to say, PBS, NPR and Democracy Now! (among others) has been covering the devastation extensively from the beginning.

    Many of those who are not indifferent to the hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico are trying to get people out. Rather than sheltering them in place amid the ruins, the thinking is that moving a significant number of Puerto Ricans — maybe ten percent of the island’s population, maybe more — to the mainland, to Florida and New York primarily, will relieve some of the worst of the suffering.

    There certainly has been an absence of interest in relief for Puerto Rico and the islands in the White House and Congress, occupied as they have been by more important things — whether football players kneeling on the field or healthcare-palooza, and having already done the hurricane relief thing for Texas and Florida they’re over that now. The public backlash at their indifference moved them a bit toward focusing some attention on the islands, but obviously it’s not their priority.

    The indifference is not generalized. It’s concentrated in the Trump White House, among Republicans in Congress, and by those parts of the media that can’t let go of the twitter machine.

  14. wendy davis

    wsws covered the clueless trump twitter assholery, a week late and $73 x 2 billion late. there were a couple things i hadn’t known. the slow-mo deaths of the poor, sickly, and elderly will be the worst, and there will be so many, including in florida and houston.

    “While at the time Washington fostered the development in its “perfumed colony” of manufacturing, principally pharmaceuticals, textiles, petrochemicals and electronics, through corporate tax breaks and low-wage labor, these measures were later rescinded as cheaper labor platforms became available to American capital in Asia and elsewhere.

    Local self-government has been effectively abrogated with the creation of a US-appointed Fiscal Supervisory Board (JSF), which has overriding power over the territory’s budget and is charged with imposing austerity measures aimed at meeting payments to Wall Street bondholders and the predatory hedge funds that sought out distressed Puerto Rican debt.

    telesur english has reported on a group of citizens in orlando flying to puerto rico with a few truckloads of food, water, emergency supplies, but also report this barbarity:

    ‘In response to the crisis, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has also refused to extend the waiver for the Jones Act, a 97-year-old shipping law that prevents non-U.S. ships from bringing cargo to and from U.S. harbors.
    Lifting the law would have enabled Puerto Rico to receive aid cheaply and quickly with cheaper, tax-free, and readily available foreign-flagged ships.’

    on the #puertoRico on twitter, john mcCrankypants is calling on dhs to lift the jones act. guess his poor cancer recovery prognosis is causing him to consider his soul more these days.

  15. ttu

    I agree as to lack of pride, though to me it seems to me more like a dog in the manger kind of thinking (i.e. no outsiders). Abstractly (but not callously as this shames us all) I wonder what number of humans in PR must die from our negligence before any notion of guilt or shame kicks in. Yes, I know that assumes, possibly wrongly, that those sentiments have some sort of place amidst the synthetic sentiments Americans apparently prefer.

  16. wendy davis

    well, color me shocked, i tell you: shocked! from puerto rico-born María del Pilar Blanco:

    “On 30 June 2016, President Obama signed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) into law; the legislation aims to restructure Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt and ‘exercise federal oversight over the fiscal affairs of territories’. PROMESA is a response to bad financial management on the island, certainly, but that has been enabled by the colonial infrastructure in place since the US occupation in 1898.”

    also, i recently saw a NYT poll saying that 48% of amerikans didn’t know puerto ricans are fellow citizens (even of a lesser colonized sort, of course)

  17. Ché Pasa

    Katrina redux.. Color me shocked indeed.

    “It’s Obama’s fault.”

    “The natives weren’t prepared.”

    “They didn’t follow orders.”

    “The place was already a wreck for some reason.”

    “It’s Obama’s fault.”

    “Nobody could have prevented a catastrophe when two hurricanes struck one after the other. Who knew?”

    “The ocean is deep and wide. Who knew?”

    “We’re doing everything we can, and what isn’t getting done is Obama’s fault.”

    They say only a few tens have died so far, and the old, the sick, the young, and the poorest would have died anyway because they weren’t prepared — and Obama stuck it to them already.

    Those who aren’t indifferent have been mobilizing; it’s not enough and many won’t survive in the interim. The regime will do as little as possible as slowly as possible (as with Katrina) and will prevent any foreign relief by sea because… reasons.

    And yes, some individuals and interests will profit mightily from the transformation of the island.

  18. wendy davis

    @ Che Pasa: neither maria nor i are saying it’s all ‘obama’s fault’, but he did sign that sort of neoliberal austerity driven debt restructuring into law. and sure, as with haiti, the rich’ll get richer, and poor will die slow deaths again.

  19. wendy davis

    @ Ché Pasa: and yes, if the US had a military base there…the ports would have been open already, and the airports would be functional, no?

  20. Ché Pasa


    Unfortunately, in a replay of the Katrina debacle — which was blamed by the Bush regime on Clinton and the Democratic governor and the Democratic mayor of New Orleans — Obama is being blamed and will be blamed for what’s going on in Puerto Rico now. In other words, politicizing the debacle…

    Most thinking people opposed the Puerto Rico austerity deal signed during the Obama regime, as most of us still do, but Obama is not in charge now. Nevertheless, what happened under Obama is being cited and will be cited more and more as a primary cause of Puerto Rico’s current misery. It’s not. The primary cause of the current misery is the two hurricanes and the failure of the current regime to adequately attend to the business of relief — including refusal to suspend the Jones Act and insistence on Puerto Rico’s continued austerity commission government which shall be held harmless while extracting even more from the long suffering people of Puerto Rico to pay the bondholders.

    The Trump regime and the Republican congress are in charge and are slow walking relief for Puerto Rico, just as the Bush regime and the then Republican congress slow-walked relief for the victims of Katrina, and they made sure their cronies profited from whatever relief was eventually provided.

    Ian cannot name who is “indifferent” to the plight of Puerto Rico, so essentially he’s universalizing the indifference to all of us. But you and I know that’s a pernicious falsehood. It is not all of us by any means, far from it. The indifference is deliberate and is shared by a specific group of plutocrats, the White House (including the unnameable occupant who sits on the gold plated throne), and about half the members of Congress almost all of whom have an -R- by their names.

    The austerity regime is indefensible, but Obama is not in charge of sustaining it.

  21. wendy davis

    @ Ché Pasa: i haven’t seen obama blamed whatsoever, save for the mention of PROMESA once, then maria’s essay with his name on it. yes, herr Tee is in charge now, but i dunno that i even knew about promesa back in the day, and i’d thunk i was at least a somewhat careful watcher. did anyone squawk? not that i k ow of, which is why i’d thought in calling out obomba as evil he might be going to demonstrate that it was almost an inevitable extension of his foreign misadventures, bailing out the banks not the people post-2008, failure to prosecute corruption and his DoJ’s failures to prosecute the po-po who’d assassinated so many rabble class citizens, especially black and indigenous…that led us to the great orange one.

    now aside from puerto rico and herr Tee’s ongoing failure to waive the jones act, i have seen him blamed for the hurricanes, as in: withdrawing from the silly paris climate agreements. now many citizens and a few lovely airlines are starting to get stuff to puerto rico, bless all of them. but dispersal is…nigh onto impossible, and people are indeed dying, as they are on so many of the islands hit hard.

    and guess who’s calling out herr Tee for his abysmal failures? hillary clinton, whose ‘help’ in haiti still has the underclass in dire straits, fuck the clintons and bono,

    now i dunno all these politicians’ red or blue affiliations save mccranky, but there are a hella lot of folks demanding, begging, for amerika to help, and most especially to lift the jones act. also #PuertoRicoPor, dunno what that signifies.

    now cuba did fairly well, but few want to admit that is was because they’re a socialist nation, and prepared ahead of time.

  22. wendy davis

    @ Ché: my last comment’s been in moderation for an hour and a half or more,, but i’d forgotten to add that w/ obomba to trump, the nation has galloped toward inverted totalitarianism and fascism, although luckily herr Tee’s bellicosity and wall street cabinet makes it far more noticeable than O’s smooth, smiling jive-ass stabs in the backs of everyday people. the blue team hypocritically makes objections, but some of the red team minimize his access to the levers of power. his soft military coup has yet to manifest itself….so far.

  23. Ché Pasa

    For all intents and purposes, it looks like the military golpistas have taken over the PR relief efforts, as the unnamed one on the throne seems unable to handle the complexity of it all by himself. Or maybe it’s just not interesting to him. Who knows.

    At any rate, Jones Act is suspended for ten. whole. days. Whoo hoo!

    And @wd, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez (among others) extensively covered the Puerto Rican debt deal and its implementation and effects and continue to do so. It hasn’t been a mystery. It’s been an ongoing horror show which the Unnamed One has assured the Puerto Ricans cannot be reviewed, revised or canceled. Wall Street must be paid.

    Continuity above all. You see.

  24. Gaianne


    Very direct, very concise, very, very good!

    “What is interesting about all this is not so much the scale of the disaster as the indifference.

    . . . This . . is, next to excessive corruption, the surest sign of America’s decline.”

    Surest, and also the most unmistakeable. The US is blatantly a civilization on the way out. (The process takes decades, though.) There is no correction possible under the current political economy, nor is there any evidence–as opposed to mere desperate hope–that the political economy itself can change or be changed.

    “It is impossible to imagine this level of indifference in the 50s thru 70s . . . ”

    It was literally unthinkable. The phrase “can-do spirit” applied, and without irony. We are in a very, very different world now, where official indifference is not only thinkable, but our bitter expectation.

    We are slow to name this, but it is happening. And though unnamed, everybody feels it.


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